Consider contemporary Cape Town: On the one hand, the so-called Mother City, famous for its dramatic vistas, good food, and chill beach vibe, is trendier than ever, welcoming upwards of a million tourists each year. On the other, the legacy of apartheid remains: Khayelitsha, a partially informal township on the Cape Flats and one of the poorest areas in Cape Town, is still home to 2.4 million people of whom nearly 100 percent are black and young, and some half of whom live in shacks; every day, tourists visiting the Robben Island Museum take a bare-bones bus from Nelson Mandela’s onetime jail cell to a rocky outcrop where the gulls’ squalls convey a feeling of intense loneliness. Two years ago, Marion Walgate’s 1934 statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes on the University of Cape Town campus was at the center of a protest dubbed Rhodes Must Fall. A vote brought the statue down, but tensions still simmer. Last year, students tore down 24 artworks from university walls and burned them. “I got why they did it,” a student at Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art told journalist Sean O’Toole a few months after the incident. “People preach transformation, but you are constantly reminded of how things have not changed.”
Enter, this September, the 102,000-square-foot Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, on Cape Town’s picturesque Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. German collector Jochen Zeitz got permission from the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront Development Project to convert a disused complex of grain silos into exhibition space, and the development project footed the 500,000,000 rand ($38 million) bill. The artworks inside are from Zeitz’s vast collection. Built in 1921, the Grain Silo Complex was for more than half a century sub-Saharan Africa’s tallest structure, a symbol of the role that agriculture—in this case maize, or mealie-meal, in local parlance—played in driving the continent’s economic growth. The factory sorted, packed, and shipped grain until 2001. It will now house art from Africa and abroad made in the years since then.
The architects responsible for the conversion—London-based Heatherwick Studio, authors of a design studio for the Chinese fashion brand Tangy, a Buddhist temple in Kagoshima, Japan, and multiple Google campuses—have transformed the simultaneously cavernous and claustrophobic silo spaces into a light-filled L-shaped structure that has the look of a futuristic place of worship. “There was this building sitting like the elephant in Cape Town’s room,” Thomas Heatherwick said of the grain silos in a 2014 presentation of Zeitz MOCAA’s design. Wanting to make the most of its “tube-iness” and cellular structure, he blasted out the belly of the building and crowned it with glass atria to create a central chamber that functions almost as a transept, and installed elevators and spiral staircases “like big drill bits” within the tubes. Large oblong cutouts expose some of those stairs and elevators in a peekaboo effect, with each cutout the shape of a single grain of corn, enlarged as if a bean on a giant beanstalk (the visitors being Jack). “The outcome [of each hole] must have a perfection to it,” Heatherwick explained, “like a hot wire cutting through butter.” An adjacent building houses nine stories of white-cube galleries, “very crisp clinical white box spaces that don’t impose the character of the historic building on you.” The rooftop offers sweeping views of Cape Town, from Table Mountain to the shimmering sea.
Writing about the museum a few months in advance of its opening, my first call was to MOCAA executive director and chief curator Mark Coetzee, whose voice echoed as he answered my questions while walking through MOCAA’s Center for the Moving Image. “All of a sudden it’s like a puzzle that comes together,” he said. “There were over a thousand people working in the building. I’m not talking about artists and curators, I’m just talking about engineers.” They were attuned to the finer points of things like climate control and the placement of power outlets. “I’m all for decisions that were made four years ago about where a plug should go,” Coetzee marveled. “The plug is actually in the right place for the monitor to be able to show the videos.”
As we spoke artists were in the building. Isaac Julien, a British filmmaker whose parents migrated to London from St. Lucia, was in the Center for the Moving Image, installing his 2010 multiscreen video Ten Thousand Waves. Narration by Anglo-Chinese actor Benedict Wong describes a tragedy of migration: in 2004, more than 20 Chinese immigrants who’d been smuggled into Britain were picking cockles for a pittance in the Lake District’s Morecambe Bay when they were caught in one of the coast’s notorious riptides and swept out to sea, where they drowned. Speaking with me later by Skype, Julien told me that Ten Thousand Waves “should be seen at fairly close proximity to the screen. It gives a sense of intimacy.”
MOCAA’s opening show features work by artists young and old, black and white, South African, West African, African-American, and Afro-Caribbean—Afro-global, if you will. There will be hyperpigmented canvases by British-Nigerian Yinka Shonibare MBE, of the Young British Artists generation; animal-skin sculptures of the female form by the Swazi artist Nandipha Mntambo; portraits by the queer South African photographer Zanele Muholi; the 2013 Venice Biennale’s Angola Pavilion installation by photographer Edson Chagas (winner of that year’s Golden Lion award); an ebony bust by Soweto-born Mohau Modisakeng; a huge dragon sculpture in rubber and ribbon by the Cape Town–born Nicholas Hlobo; and sheets made of 1,150 tiny glass beads by American artist Liza Lou, who has a studio in Durban, a South African city around 800 miles from Cape Town. The museum’s mission is to reposition Africa as an authority on its own 54 countries and global issues beyond—as a continent no longer plundered by outsiders and force-fed an exogenous narrative, but that is, increasingly, telling its own story.
Installation plans were not yet complete when we spoke, but, Coetzee explained, the emphasis would be on juxtapositions that reorient the viewer: a gallery of paintings by an internationally renowned South African like William Kentridge will abut a similar-size gallery of paintings by someone “from Benin, the DRC, South Africa, or Swaziland, who might not be known in their field.”
“I’ve done 40 or 50 trips in the last four years to [see artwork in] Kenya,” Coetzee added, by way of example. He and his curatorial staff, who are given generous travel budgets, will continue to “get off our bums and get on the road,” he said, though he takes care to specify that their travels are done not in “discovery mode,” with its colonial overtones, but in pursuit of “education.” “It’s very dangerous for us to assume that we are discoverers,” he said. “There’s no such thing as ‘discovered’—discovering is just how little you know, how inadequate your knowledge was in the first place.”
MOCAA was a long-dormant dream of Coetzee’s that could not have been realized without Jochen Zeitz, onetime CEO of Puma sportswear. The two met in the early 2000s, when Coetzee, a native of Cape Town, was curator for the Rubell Family Collection in Miami. The Rubells were early collectors of, and advocates for, African and African-American art, and Puma cosponsored “30 Americans,” a group show of African-American artists that opened at the Rubell Collection in December 2008; one of the longest-running traveling exhibitions in American history, it has since appeared at 10 institutions. The following year, Coetzee left the Rubell Collection to become chief curator of puma.creative and around that time began strategizing with Zeitz about how to create Africa’s first world-class contemporary art museum.
“I love Africa and have had a home in Kenya for many, many years,” Zeitz said in an email. His “passion for the continent started decades ago,” but it wasn’t until Puma sponsored “30 Americans” and he met Coetzee that he became focused on contemporary art from Africa and the diaspora. “Mark and I really just shared a vision for bringing African art to the forefront of the contemporary art world, and we both felt that there was a need for a significant cultural institution on the African continent that would focus on contemporary African art. After years of working together and looking for the right place for my growing collection, we heard that the V&A Waterfront was considering transforming the historic Grain Silo complex into a cultural institution. All the stars seemed to align and it was the meeting of these two visions that ultimately resulted in the establishment of the partnership that has led us to Zeitz MOCAA.” His desire is for the museum to evolve alongside contemporary African art. It should feel “like a living, breathing entity,” he said.
Zeitz, who was born in industrial Mannheim into a family of physicians, had a meteoric rise in the business world, and, in 1993, was named Puma CEO when he was 30, the youngest CEO of a public company in German history. The apparel brand had been operating at a loss; by forming strategic partnerships—with a teenage Usain Bolt, for instance, as well as soccer stars from African nations playing in the European premier league, and the designers Jil Sander and Alexander McQueen—Zeitz took Puma to profitability and grew it into one of the top three sportswear brands in the world. He remained CEO until 2011, when he stepped down to form the B Team, a sustainability initiative he started with Sir Richard Branson. Today, he is said to spend as much time as he can at Segera, his 50,000-acre ranch in Kenya, home to spectacular wildlife and the bulk of his art collection, which, Zeitz said, was built with a museum in mind, and includes work by Jane Alexander, Godfried Donker, Marlene Dumas, Rashid Johnson, Julie Mehretu, Wangechi Mutu, Chris Ofili, Penny Siopis, Hank Willis Thomas, Kehinde Wiley, and Sue Williamson. Much of that work is on long-term loan to MOCAA while the museum builds its permanent collection.
MOCAA’s future has members of the local art community galvanized, if cautiously so. Liza Essers, owner and director of the 50-year-old Goodman Gallery, has long directed outreach efforts, “projects in what we call ‘alternative spaces’ beyond the gallery walls to reach larger audiences.” Although Goodman’s contemporary art library is open to anyone who walks into the gallery, the space can accommodate only 20 to 30 people. The museum offers an opportunity to expand on that. “It feels like everything we believe is critical for [the art scene in] South Africa could be possible through an institution like Zeitz,” she said. MOCAA has a whole floor of classrooms with a lunchroom to encourage daylong visits from far-flung schools, and offers free admission on Wednesday mornings for all South Africans and people from the African continent.
Michael Stevenson, founder of the 14-year-old Stevenson Gallery, was more circumspect. In an email, he told me that the word “museum” in the African context called to mind Benin-born artist Meschac Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art 1997–2002, a 12-room installation acquired by Tate Modern in London in 2013. A “museum within a museum,” the piece was part art gallery, part West African market, and riffed on institutional standbys (gift shop, restaurant) with playful renditions that incorporated tarot readings and evening meals prepared by artists.
“There have been many philosophical positions around the appropriate form that a museum in Africa should and could take,” Stevenson wrote. “Often it has been asked if the high-modernist white cube form is appropriate, and MOCAA’s position in this regard will be at the core of how the museum will come to be regarded . . . The term ‘art’ is fraught when seeking to understand creative imagination on the African continent because of the diverse backgrounds and training of African artists.”
In short, the museum will be under scrutiny. “What is African is widely debated in terms of race and the diaspora and South Africa’s frequent dominance of art on the continent,” Stevenson continued, “and MOCAA’s engaging with the many perspectives that are associated with the word ‘African’ will be closely observed in terms of perceived biases and positions.”
Those biases may be an issue when it comes to the museum’s optics. The four public faces of the project—Coetzee, Zeitz, Heatherwick, and V&A Waterfront CEO David Green—are all white men; Zeitz and Heatherwick are non-nationals. Coetzee, however, points to the diversity of the museum’s curatorial staff and the artists they are collecting. He believes the integrity of the institution’s approach will speak for itself, citing, as just one example, multiple sculptures, drawings, paintings, and photographs by Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai Chiurai that the museum has acquired. “We’ve taken as a mission to really make sure that bodies of work stay together and that they find their way back to the continent,” he said. “There is a lived experience in this work, and for people to come to Africa and to engage with it closer to where the dialogue originated . . . that says that African artifacts of our time are valuable enough from a cultural point of view to build a cathedral for them”—a cathedral, he added, on “the same scale and the same ambition and the same platform” as those devoted to, say, “Jeff Koons and Michelangelo.”
Ultimately, the success or failure of MOCAA lies in how it is seen by the people of South Africa, for which one piece in MOCAA’s inaugural installation might serve as a stand-in. Muholi’s 2011 series of black-and-white photographs, “Faces and Phases,” includes a picture of one Xana Nyilenda, a girl in her teens or early twenties wearing a hoodie, a lip ring, and a leather jacket. She looks straight at the camera, her expression powerfully neutral. A member of the generation that stands to inherit the country—its sublime beauty and its painful past both—she is MOCAA’s platonic viewer, and the institution’s contribution will be measured by her appraising gaze.
Gemma Sieff, a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, has been on staff at the New York Review of Books, Harper’s Magazine, Town & Country, and Bookforum. Her writing has appeared in n+1, VICE, the Paris Review, and the New York Times.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 80 under the title “From Maize to Museum.”